How Would They End the War?

By JAMES BENNET

New York Times

September 20, 2004

WASHINGTON President Bush told voters in Minnesota on Thursday that "there's ongoing acts of violence" in Iraq but "this country's headed toward democracy."

Senator John Kerry told the National Guard Association, meeting in Las Vegas, that Mr. Bush lived in "a fantasy world of spin," and that "with each passing day, we're seeing more chaos, more violence, more indiscriminate killings" in Iraq.

As usual, neither man had much to say about what might seem a weighty, connected challenge: How to bring the conflict in Iraq to a close.

This presidential campaign has a passion for the fine print, from the precise service records of the candidates to the exact positions they have taken, and adjusted, over the years.

But when it comes to a paramount foreign policy test the next president will face, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry have said little more than that each will end the war the right way and his opponent will not.

In terms of presidential politics, the blurriness of the debate has so far worked to Mr. Bush's advantage, political strategists say. He has succeeded in framing the Iraq war as part of a larger war on terror, while Mr. Kerry faces limits imposed by his own past decisions, including his vote to give the president authority to use force in Iraq at the outset.

But in terms of public debate, a chance to clarify the means and aims of an American war may be going by the wayside.

The vagueness stems partly from the military and diplomatic realities, the elusiveness of any quick fix. And it stems partly from the obstacles that would face any challenger trying to find a campaign issue in a foreign crisis.

"It's a very tough thing to talk about for both, for different reasons," said Matt Bennett, a Democratic consultant. "For Bush, because it's a liability, and for Kerry, because it's hard to figure out what to say."

He said that Mr. Kerry was "boxed in by the reality that you don't want to prejudge a situation for which you don't have the intelligence, or you could get beaten up" by the press.

Scott Reed, a Republican strategist, said that by transferring sovereignty to the Iraqis in June and by looking ahead now to some form of elections in January, Mr. Bush distanced himself from the conflict. "I think that's been a clever strategy to keep them once removed," he said. "While the steady stream of bad news from Iraq is wearing people down, it seems like Iraqi problems."

In envisioning a way out of Iraq, each candidate offers less a detailed road map than an arrow in the sand. As he often does, Mr. Bush fused the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan on Thursday, telling his audience in St. Cloud, Minn., "We'll help them get their elections, we'll get them on the path to stability and democracy as quickly as possible, and then our troops will return home with the honor they have earned."

On Wednesday, in a rare development, one candidate was pressed for specifics. The radio host Don Imus asked Mr. Kerry how he would meet his stated goal of leaving Iraq in a first term. Mr. Kerry said, "The plan gets more complicated every single day" because of the mayhem there.

He said he would "immediately call a summit meeting of the European community," seek more help from allies and speed training of Iraqi troops. Questioned further, Mr. Kerry said: "What everybody in America ought to be doing today is not asking me. They ought to be asking the president, 'What is your plan?' "

Mr. Imus said, "We're asking you because you want to be president."

Mr. Kerry replied, "I can't tell you what I'm going to find on the ground on Jan. 20."

During presidential races in two previous wars in 1952, during the Korean war, and in 1968, during the Vietnam War the debate also stayed blurry. "That's a straight line from '52 through '68 to today," said Douglas. C. Foyle, a political scientist at Wesleyan University who is writing a book about the effect of campaigns on foreign policy. "Nobody has an answer and nobody's being very specific."

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower won in 1952 after offering only the fuzziest of alternatives. Just before the election, he promised that, if elected, he would "concentrate on the job of ending the Korean war" and added, "I shall go to Korea." He left wide open the question of what he might do there.

In 1968, Richard Nixon promised "to end the war and win the peace." He offered few specifics beyond one that has an echo in Mr. Kerry's campaign today - a pledge to speed the training of the local American allies, South Vietnamese troops.

"He was very cagey about it," said Kenneth L. Khachigian, a longtime Republican strategist who, at 23, was a researcher for Nixon in 1968. "He didn't want to restrict his options." Mr. Khachigian noted that Nixon had a significant advantage over Mr. Kerry - he could sit back and let Democratic opponents of the war attack it and his rival, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

Mr. Kerry's advisers say that he plans to present soon a more detailed proposal for ending the conflict. To be credible, he must address voters' worries about the war, they say, though they believe domestic issues like health care are more politically effective for him.

Mr. Kerry's critics say his caution fuels a perception that he is being evasive. But he has real "incentives to obfuscate," said Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University, including concerns that a new attack in the United States or a sudden change in Iraq could make committing to a specific proposal now seem misguided later.

The bulk of Mr. Bush's supporters on the Iraq conflict have similar reasons for backing it, while his critics differ on fundamental questions like whether it is a good war fought poorly or a mistaken venture from the start. "His statements on Iraq, if he's precise, end up offending one or the other wing," Professor Feaver said of Mr. Kerry.

Mr. Kerry is also hobbled by his vote authorizing the president to go to war and his agreement with Mr. Bush that walking away now would embolden enemies of the United States. So he is trying to challenge Mr. Bush on his management of the war and his honesty in talking about it.

Mr. Kerry presents himself as better able to extricate the United States. He is pressing distinctions not of broad strategy but of tactics, which might not provide the sharp contrast he wants.

Even Mr. Kerry's talk of recruiting more allies has exposed him to an implicit attack from Mr. Bush, who routinely says, as he did in St. Cloud, "I will never turn over America's national security decisions to leaders of other countries."

Mr. Kerry is also caught in a larger box - his essential agreement with Mr. Bush's vision of the worldwide terrorist threat.

Now, Mr. Kerry would like to isolate Iraq from Afghanistan and the larger struggle against terrorism, while Mr. Bush wants to connect them. Mr. Kerry would like to connect the war in Iraq to problems within the United States -"It's wrong to be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in the United States of America,'' he says - while Mr. Bush wants to keep them apart.

Mr. Bush's campaign task has been easier because of the politics that accompany a struggle against terrorism, in which the threat seems as real and close as the next trip downtown but the enemy is spectral.

Mr. Bush consistently merges the Iraq war with the wider struggle. "You're fighting terrorist enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the globe so we do not have to face them here at home," he told the National Guard convention on Tuesday.

David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist based in Chicago, said that by morphing the conflicts in Iraq and against terror, the Republicans were making attacks on the Iraq policy "a sign of weakness in the war on terrorism."

"By putting it in that context they try to put the protective shield around themselves and use the negative energy against you," he said, adding that the Iraq war may actually have emboldened terrorists. He said that the Republican strategy may yet be "sorely tested" because "the situation in Iraq seems to be worsening."

Mr. Kerry is trying to convince voters that, because of the costs of the Iraq war, Mr. Bush has forced them to sacrifice without explicitly asking them to, spending an estimated $200 billion on a foreign adventure rather than on needs at home.

For that message to stick, voters must first accept his premise that, his own vote notwithstanding, the war in Iraq was a mistake.

That explains why Mr. Bush and his surrogates spend far more time justifying the entrance to the war than pointing to an exit.